The South in the Modern American Political Imagination

AHA Session 17
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Room 203 (Hynes Convention Center)
Bruce J. Schulman, Boston University
The Audience

Session Abstract

Throughout U.S. history, the South has functioned both as an actual place (“real”) and a cultural construct (“imagined”).  In the midst of post-World War II concerns about modernity, suburban conformity, and the “blanding” of national culture, many Americans sought relief in wide-ranging imaginings of southern culture.  Southernness endured as a collection of positive and negative traits, set apart from the rest of the nation, even as the South’s distinctive “colonial” economy and system of race relations disappeared.  The tumultuous civil rights era complicated understandings of the region, and a politicized South now functioned in two ways: Americans often analyzed the region through its jumble of reactionary (e.g., George Wallace) and progressive (e.g., Jimmy Carter) politics while interpreting—sometimes unconsciously—southern culture as inherently political, with regional and national implications.  By politicizing southern culture, postwar Americans wished to fulfill a variety of purposes, from claiming southernness as a flexible and utilitarian set of traits (e.g., familial connectedness, closeness to the land, and authenticity) worthy of national emulation to—conversely—declaring it as a refuge for white identity against modern life and racial change. 
     This panel considers southern political imaginings from a diverse set of perspectives.  Zachary J. Lechner discusses attempts by the Republican Party to discredit Jimmy Carter’s southernness during the 1976 presidential campaign.  Republicans dismissed Carter as a typical liberal and a southerner in name only in order to erode his southern support. But Carter’s expert presentation of his southernness as a mixture of traditional values and progressive racial views proved more appealing to southern voters, for whom regional pride outweighed their commitment to political conservatism.
     Grace Elizabeth Hale’s paper on the making of the 1976 Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County U.S.A. furthers the panel’s interest in the political uses of southern culture.  Hale uses the film to explore multiple postwar political and cultural narratives, including 1960s and 1970s leftist filmmakers’ fascination with the rural South.  Their (re)discovery of the southern “folk” manifested a desire on the part of these filmmakers to utilize the documentary form to recover the aesthetics and politics of the Great Depression era.
     Finally, Joseph H. Crespino critically examines the positive public response to the 2003 disclosure that South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond had fathered a black daughter, Essie May Washington-Williams.  The author questions this story of apparent racial healing by contextualizing the national reactions, via Thurmond’s career, within a history of southern political conservatism and racial oppression in the segregated South.  Crespino’s work demonstrates the continued tendency in the twenty-first century to interpret the region selectively and for political purposes.
     These papers illuminate Americans’ battles to variously interpret, defend, and adapt the southern way of life in the midst of post-civil rights era shifts in the region’s politics and culture.  They suggest the multiple meanings of southernness in this period and their ability to be wielded in complicated, and frequently, contradictory ways.  It will appeal to a broad audience interested in recent American politics and culture as well as the history of the South.

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